Satire In The Importance Of Being Earnest

What does Wilde satirize in The Importance of Being Earnest?

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The title of the play helps us understand what Wilde is satirizing or poking fun at. For starters, he is skewering middle-class hypocrisies about domestic bliss; one of the confusions about talking about the Victorian British "middle class" is that these are people we today would consider, on the whole,...

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The title of the play helps us understand what Wilde is satirizing or poking fun at. For starters, he is skewering middle-class hypocrisies about domestic bliss; one of the confusions about talking about the Victorian British "middle class" is that these are people we today would consider, on the whole, wealthy. Middle-class Victorians, at least in public, paid an immense lip service to "earnestness" or sincerity, often typified as a sentimental dedication to home and hearth, while at the same time, as the play indicates, often leading double lives. In fact, Algernon asserts that all married British men lead double lives, meaning they all have a life on the side that their wives are unaware of. Jack and Algernon themselves have double lives to the extent they have invented imaginary alter egos named Ernest and Bunbury. As it happens, both Jack and Algernon pretend to be Jack's imaginary brother Ernest: the irony (and satire on earnestness) is that both of them show their lack of complete earnestness or honesty in taking on the fake name Ernest.

Adding to confusion and satirizing a concept that was an important part of the "arts for arts sake movement" Wilde was part of, it happens that Jack's name truly is Ernest. This pokes fun at the idea that Wilde wrote about in his essay/dialogue "The Decay of the Art of Lying." In it, he repeats the aesthete's theme that nature imitates art: once an artist paints clouds in a certain way, for example, people see them that way. In his play, he extends that idea comically to the fictions we weave about ourselves: how easy it is to become what we pretend to be, as happens literally to Jack when he finds out he is Ernest.

Jack's name being Ernest also gives Wilde a chance to spoof or satirize another frequently commented on social ill: the inadequate nurse maid or caretaker of young children (we can think, too, of the children in Barrie's Peter Pan having a dog for a nurse): in this case, the nurse. Mrs. Prism, puts her book in the bassinet and baby Jack/Ernest in a satchel, leading to him being left at Victoria Station and found by Mr. Cardew. This exaggerates the incompetence of nurse maids, but it is a theme that would have resonated with the audience.

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The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People is an 1895 farcical comedy written by famed Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde. It tells the story of Jack and Algernon, two bachelors who wish to marry the girls they fell in love with, and who occasionally call themselves “Ernest” so that they can escape their monotonous lives and avoid their social responsibilities. Wilde uses satire to mock and ridicule many social and cultural aspects of the Victorian era, which is why some analysts and literary critics consider the play a social satire.

For instance, Wilde mocks the institution of marriage, as well as the idea of falling in love; he explains how people don’t really care about love, respect, and empathy, and only care about the social and financial status of the person they intend to marry. He also mocks the wealthy elites and the upper class of Victorian London, showcasing their unhealthy obsession with materialism, triviality, “perfection,” and political and social relevance and influence, while the rest of the population wallows in poverty and misery. Finally, Wilde highlights "the importance of being earnest," honest and genuine, and he ridicules those who choose money and power over love and kindness.

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Wilde targets several social institutions for his satire.  One of the most obvious in the play is Wilde's satrical view on marriage.  He does this by giving the girls (Gwendolen and Cecily) silly prerequisites for marriage: only the name Ernest.  Nothing else matters to them, other than the name Ernest.  Lady Bracknell, when inquiring as to Jack's suitability as a potential husband for Gwendolen, asks about his income, his politics and whether his owns land and house--not if he truly cares for her.  Wilde is satirizing marriage, showing these people thing it nothing more than a social adventure rather than a loving union.

Another element of society that Wilde satirizies is the upper class.  All of the characters (except for the butlers) would be considered upper class, and each shows a sense of frivolity toward life and serious issues.  Jack uses his brother's "death" as a way to excuse his Bunburrying; Alergnon seems to take nothing seriously, except eating.  Gwendolen wants only to look fashionable--and requires Jack to propose in "the proper way".  Lady Bracknell chases after her daughter to the country, all to prevent a marriage.  At a time when there were thousands of poor people suffering and barely making a living in England, these are trivial concerns.

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So many things are satirized in this play!

1. The snobbery, classism, and elitism of Victorian London is exemplified by Lady Bracknell

2. The fake imagery of grandiosity and wealth by living above their means and still hang out with the upper crust is represented with the dandy, Algernon.

3. Marriage, and the reasons to get married. Victorians might have at times married for love, but most marriages were also business transactions such as the one Lady Bracknell tried to conduct between Algy and Cecily- all for the sake of going up in social ranking

4. Snobbery is illustrated when Jack and Ms. Prism in separate ocasions describe how Jack was abandoned in a handbag at a train station. The play QUICKLY mentions that he was left in Victoria Station but in "THE BRIGHTON LINE"- that is, the line that goes to the Posh side- In other words, forget that he was abandoned. The imporance is that he was abandoned "in the Brighton Line"

5. Moralism is mocked with the reasons why women get attracted to men. As Victorians were moralists and always claimed to abide by religious motivations for everything, here are Gwendolyn and Cecily, falling in love with men just because their names are Earnest. 

6. Algy's eating habits are also a mockery of how the upper classes feasted on excess while the slum district of Victorian London in the East End was in one of the worst economical situations in history.

Trust me, there is a WHOLE lot more satire than our posts would fit!

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The most obvious satire is about love and relationships.  Wilde uses the characters of Gwendolen and Cecily who only fall in love with men because of their names (Ernest).  Cecily has even created a relationship with a man she's never met.  She's been engaged, then it was broken off, and then she was engaged again--all without his even knowing about it.  On top of that, the Ernest she "fell in love with" never existed.  There is also the relationship between Dr. Chausable and the governess.  Such a relationship would never exist in the Victorian era, as he is a holy man who chose God over marriage.

The other side to his satire is making fun of Victorian society.  It seems to be the women who make all of the decisions in the play.  We never even meet Lord Bracknell.  He is constantly regarded as the woman of the house, as we would see it today.  Lady Bracknell won't even tell him about Gwendolen running out to the country to see Jack.  She thinks he can't handle it, so she tells him Gwendolen is at a lecture somewhere. 

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